On Oct. 7, 1849, the brig St. John struck Grampus Ledge off the coast of Cohasset during a sudden and furious storm.
The St. John was known as a famine ship because its passengers were mostly destitute Irish emigrants fleeing the great famine. An estimated 20 percent died of disease or starvation aboard the famine ships, but more than a hundred died in the wreck of the St. John.
Henry David Thoreau happened to visit Cape Cod as the victims were gathered and buried. His account forms the opening chapter of his book Cape Cod.
Wreck of the St. John
Thoreau, who lived in Concord, Mass., decided he wanted to get a better view than he’d had of the ocean. He and a companion, the poet William Ellery Channing, left Concord for Boston on Oct. 9, 1849. On reaching Boston they learned the steamship to Provincetown hadn’t arrived because of a violent storm. They saw in the streets a handbill that said, “Death! 145 lives lost at Cohasset.”
So they decided to take the train to Cohasset.
“We found many Irish in the cars, going to identify bodies and to sympathize with the survivors, and also to attend the funeral which was to take place in the afternoon,” Thoreau wrote.
When they arrived, nearly every passenger headed to the beach and many others flocked in from the nearby countryside.
“As we passed the graveyard we saw a large hole, like a cellar, freshly dug there,” he wrote. And “we met several hay riggings and farm-wagons coming away toward the meeting house, each loaded with three large, rough deal boxes. We did not need to ask what was in them.”
Thoreau learned the St. John, from Galway, had wrecked on Sunday morning. The sea on Tuesday still broke violently on the rocks. Thoreau probably did not then know that the captain, Martin Oliver, hadn’t exactly tried to save the passengers.
According to the Boston Daily Bee, before the ship smashed against the rock,
…the jolly boat was hanging by the tackle, alongside, when the stern ringbolt broke and the boat fell into the water. The Captain, second mate and two boys jumped in to get her clear, when about 25 passengers jumped in and swamped her. The twenty-five, together with the second mate and two boys, perished. The captain caught a rope hanging over the quarter, and was drawn on board by the first mate. When the long boat was got clear, a number of passengers jumped over to swim to her, but all perished. The captain, first mate (Mr. Crawford), and seven of the crew swam to and reached the boat.
On the beach in Cohasset, Thoreau noted 18 or 20 of the large boxes lying on a green hillside and surrounded by a crowd. People had collected the bodies, some 27 or 28, and brought them there. “Some were rapidly nailing down the lids, others were carting the boxes away, and others were lifting the lids, which were yet loose, and peeping under the cloths, for each body, with such rags as still adhered to it, was covered loosely with a white sheet.”
He witnessed no sign of grief, he wrote, “but there was a sober dispatch of business which was affecting.”
“I saw many marble feet and matted heads as the cloths were raised, and one livid, swollen and mangled body of a drowned girl, — who probably had intended to go out to service in some American family,–to which some rags still adhered…”
Sometimes, he wrote, he saw two or more children or a parent and child in the same box. “On the lid would perhaps be written with red chalk, “Bridget such-a-one, and sister’s child.”
The Remains of the St. John
Thoreau then walked along the beach and saw in a cove bits of a ship and a great quantity of feathers. A sailor told him that was the St. John. Then Thoreau looked out at Grampus Rock and saw part of the vessel sticking up.
In a second cove the wreckage on shore piled up several feet deep, with an occasional bonnet or jacket on it.
“In the very midst of the crowd about this wreck, there were men with carts busily collecting the seaweed which the storm had cast up,” he wrote. Sometimes they had to separate clothing fragments from the seaweed.
Thoreau then discovered a part of one side of the St. John behind some rocks. He estimated its size as 40 feet long and 14 feet wide.
“I was even more surprised at the power of the waves, exhibited on this shattered fragment, than I had been at the sight of the smaller fragments before,” he wrote. “The largest timbers and iron braces were broken superfluously, and I saw that no material could withstand the power of the waves; that iron must go to pieces in such a case, and an iron vessel would be cracked up like an egg-shell on the rocks.”
Then, in the afternoon, Thoreau and Channing saw the funeral procession at a distance. The captain and the other survivors of the St. John walked at the head of it.
“On the whole, it was not so impressive a scene as I might have expected,” he wrote. “If I had found one body cast upon the beach in some lonely place, it would have affected me more. I sympathized rather with the winds and waves, as if to toss and mangle these poor human bodies was the order of the day.”
Thoreau concluded his essay on the wreck of the St. John with the observation that the victims had come to the New World as Columbus or the Pilgrims had.
“[B]ut, before they could reach it, they emigrated to a newer world than ever Columbus dreamed of, yet one of whose existence we believe that there is far more universal and convincing evidence — though it has not yet been discovered by science…”
Most of the victims today lie buried in Cohasset Central Cemetery.
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Image: Cohasset shore by Chris Devers, CC by 2.0, via Flickr. Cohasset Central Cemetery Google image: 2021 MassGIS, Commonwealth of Massachusetts EOEA, Maxar Technologies, Map data 2021. This story updated in 2023.